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ACHIEVING EUPHORIA THROUGH FITNESS
By Ruth Frost, July 2013
Euphoria (from Ancient Greek εὐφορία) - a condition in which a person experiences intense feelings of well-being, elation, happiness, ecstasy, excitement and/or joy. (1)
My first few sessions with a personal trainer were hell.
Sweating and panting under the command of the fantastic Leon Baillie, head trainer at Highgate Fitness Studios, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to burst into tears, throw up, or faint. But when, after a few sessions of hating every moment, I started feeling the mental benefits, I was soon hooked. I was also angry that I’d not been told about this magical route to happiness by the women’s magazines I’d been reading for years.
I just wasn’t worried enough about my figure or health for those things to be enough of a motivation to get all out-of-breath, sweaty and uncomfortable. If however someone had told me how amazing exercise would make me FEEL, I’d have been much more curious. I hope this article will spark that curiosity in you.
Exercise makes you feel good in myriad ways, some physical, some psychological. Here we will explain how that works.
Boosting pleasure, masking pain
Exercise releases endorphins in the brain, from the pituary gland. These are the brain’s natural ‘happy’ chemicals, and mask the transmission of pain impulses in the brain. This allows other ‘pleasure’ neurotransmitters such as dopamine to be felt more intensely. So you have more pleasure chemicals circulating and pain sensations are blocked – hence you feel great. This euphoria generated by exercise can be addictive – which helps greatly in sticking to a regular exercise program.
“But I hate exercise! After ten minutes I’m feeling awful, tired, out of breath, and just want to go home and put my feet up; so clearly for me, it’s not stimulating endorphins...”.
Well, admittedly you do have to work a bit to get there – it takes around 30 minutes of exercise before endorphins are released. Humans are programmed against discomfort, and it’s going to take a few workout sessions before your body and brain learn that the half-hour of discomfort is worth it for the pay-off afterwards.
Once you really understand that, you may even start looking forward to that discomfort, relishing it as the pathway to the great feelings you’ll have afterwards. Have you driven past a pair of grimacing runners on the road recently and thought “nutters – why do they put themselves through it?”. If you could see the blissed-out looks on their faces and hear the laughter once they’re home and showered, you’d understand why.
Exercise generates new cells in the brain, specifically in the hippocampus, the centre of learning and memory. In depressed people, and those who have formerly been depressed, hippocampal volume is smaller than in those who have not suffered depression (2). Boosting the volume of this region can help to protect again future depressive episodes.
Exercise also sets in motion a brain mechanism which has the same effects as Prozac. By stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, exercise increases the concentration of neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. Some antidepressant drugs - serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which include Prozac - function in the same way; but can have side effects (such as constipation, insomnia and headaches) which exercise won’t give you.
Serotonin has many roles within the body but helps to regular mood, appetite and sleep. Feeling good, satisfied with your food intake (rather than craving another biscuit even though you know you’re not actually hungry) and sleeping well are all going to help keep you feeling happy overall.
Studies have shown there is an impact from exercise in the form of both fast but short-term antidepressive effects and slower-acting but longer-term effects (3). One good session will make you feel great for some times afterwards, but keep it up regularly and you’re creating an ongoing feel-good state.
So there’s a basic run-down of some of the activities in the brain which exercise stimulates and why that will make you feel good. But there are other factors at work also.
Peace of mind and ‘me-time’
Peace of mind can bring a relaxed state. If you know you are looking after your health, you will worry less about it. Imagine you had spent the evening on the sofa polishing off a giant takeaway... for the third evening that week. As you lay in bed tackling indigestion, you may well worry about your health, with news stories and government health warnings about saturated fats, chemicals and salt, plus the dangers of a sedentary diet, running through your mind. Now imagine you had completed a 45 minute workout then had a healthy dinner - your mind would be free of those worries.
A workout can provide me-time for people who usually have others making demands of them. High-pressured career types often value personal training sessions as being the only time in the week when someone else is in charge and all they have to do is what that person says (alternatively, they could see a dominatrix...). That can be deeply refreshing and really charge up the batteries.
It can be the same for busy full-time parents who otherwise spend all week running around after others – to have that time which is just for them, where someone else is looking after them and being focused on their needs.
In physical terms, we can all identify with that fact that we tend to store negative emotion in physical ways – hunched-up shoulders, tension in muscles, adrenaline circulating. Exercise can help release those muscles which in turn releases that tension.
Training can sometimes help bring suppressed negative emotions to the fore, a very cathartic experience. If those emotions aren’t suppressed but all too vivid, again exercise can help. If a client is furious about how her boss treated her that day, hitting a punch-bag during her training session will help her leave that anger in the studio instead of taking it home. Or if a client is having an emotionally hard time, I will schedule a longer stretch segment at the end of the session with plenty of deep breathing, helping to release tension in the muscles and relax the mind.
Of course what exercise will lead to longer term for you – a body shape you are proud of and a healthier body more resistant to disease, which functions well in the ways you need – all adds up to a happier life too.
In my experience, different forms of exercise seem to stimulate euphoria more easily in different clients. It’s something I look out for in the first month or two while I’m getting to know a client, then make sure to work in to sessions each week to make sure they always leave feeling amazing. Interestingly, I’ve found that for many female clients, lifting heavy weights stimulates this far more than traditionally female-focused cardio.
If you’ve never ‘gotten into’ exercise before – if the physical benefits just aren’t worth enough to you to make you do it – then try imagining these mental benefits instead. I hope I’ve made you curious enough about them for you to give it a try.
Copyright Ruth Frost, July 2013
2. Hippocampal volume and depression: a meta-analysis of MRI studies. Videbech P, Ravnkilde B. Institute for Basic Psychiatric Research, Department of Biological Psychiatry, Psychiatric Hospital, Aarhus University Hospital, DK-8240 Risskov, Denmark.
3. 3. ‘The Effects Of Exercise On The Brain’ – MK McGovern
Training with kettlebells
Kettlebells aren’t a new fad, though you many think so from the way they’ve suddenly exploded onto the mainstream commercial fitness scene in the past few years. I even saw them for sale in Sainsbury’s the other day! It’s believed they originated in Russia in the 19th century, though some proponents claim a variant of them can be seen on Ancient Greek pottery.
More recently, if you watch the first Rocky film, you’ll see them in the background of the training montage sequences. Boxing gyms have always used them to assist in developing what their fighters need – great cardio fitness, agility, balanced all-over strength, core stability and power. Those are all things which every trainee can aspire to for their overall health and fitness.
Kettlebells are swung, lifted and pushed in various moves and sequences, getting your heart rate up, working your muscles, your core (as it works to stop you being pulled over by the momentum of the kettlebell), and your brain at the same time. They become a fun and surprisingly graceful way to train, particularly when moves are matched to your favourite choice of music. Euphoria Fitness has them in weights from 4kg to 20kg and in singles and pairs. Used correctly with attention from an experienced trainer such as myself, they can form a key part of the workout for every client, from beginner to experienced.
Other functional fitness kit includes battling ropes (like tug-of-war ropes), tyres, Olympic rings and sandbags. You’ll also find more recognisable equipment within our kit box such as dumbbells and Swiss balls.
So what will functional fitness training do for you? It will give you a thorough, balanced workout, which over time makes you fitter and stronger in ways applicable to your day-to-day life. It will also help you lose weight if needed; build muscle mass if that’s your goal; improve your posture, balance and agility; and strengthen your heart and lungs. As with all thorough workouts, it will also help get your endorphins firing for a better mood and higher energy levels, along with helping to control or ward off a host of conditions and diseases.
[It will also, if you have friends who go to a mainstream gym, give you bragging rights – “you spent 40 minutes on the cross-trainer last night watching bad MTV? I hauled sandbags, thrashed battling ropes, swung kettlebells and balanced on Olympic Rings with my favourite Metallica/Brahms/Erick Morillo/ABBA (insert favourite music) CD on in the background!”]
Of course, the intensity and exact nature of each workout depends on you, the client; what your level of fitness is at the moment; and on what your goals are. This is kit which also requires a learning process and gradual development of new skills, which in itself can make the workout process more satisfying and fun.
Curious? – book a taster session for a basic introduction and to learn more about the ways functional fitness can improve your life.
Copyright Ruth Frost June 2013